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Installation by Rich Tomasello at Daemen College

"Be a Man"
"Russian Olympic Team"

Beautiful Gas Mask

Enter Daemen College’s Haberman Gacioch Center for Visual & Performing Arts and walk past the stalls of student art portfolios and into a gallery of unlikely objects—Rich Tomasello’s exhibition, Innocence Lost. There is no instructional statement on wall, no enlightening audio headphones. Although I had arrived after reading the printed exhibition brochure featuring a brief artist statement and three short essays by local arts professionals, anyone wandering through the gallery is left to ponder the array of artifacts in their own way. The small room titled Bedroom Bomb Shelter shows a child’s bed with a large flat-screen surveillance monitor hung on the wall. Below is a line of tall cans marked Civil Defense All Purpose Survival Cracker. The other wall is lined with barrels of Civil Defense Drinking Water. Shelves above are stocked with various cans, glass bottles, and supplies wrapped in brown paper.

Where did the artist find all these official goods dating back to the cold war fifty years ago? Do these cans still contain crackers and water? I recall “civil defense” air raid drills of that era as a fifth grader at Thomas Edison School. We walked solemnly into a dark basement fallout shelter to practice the safety plan in case of a bombing emergency.

We now refer to national safety as a measure of “homeland security,” a much cozier phrase than the dreary old civil defense label. Yet, children of today face a full catastrophe of life in an increasingly violent culture. How do we respond to that reality? Tomasello’s installation invites questions and conversation. The artist delivers a strong message about power, abuse of power, and powerlessness. He is a public school art teacher who initiated an anti-bullying awareness campaign that recently culminated in exhibition of student art in the Education Department of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. This work is in the tradition of artist-teacher Tim Rollins, who collaborated on socio-political literary art projects with Kids of Survival (KOS) in the South Bronx during the 1980s. Tomasello’s SSK (School Survival Kit) consists of a clear vinyl backpack filled with a unified assembly of all white handguns, ammunition, and grenades. Designed as a clean and modern consumer product that offers all-purpose protection. Other such objects include school lockers, lunch boxes, and child-size gas masks. The monochromatic white blank canvas veneer strips them of ordinariness and converts them into artful events—almost sacred. The most innocent toddler tricycle, complete with pint-size gas mask folded into a basket on the front, is positioned on the floor underneath the title of the show, a striking altar to the entire effort.

A selection of customized toy action figures are appropriately presented in molded plastic blister packs with specialized labeling. The packaging on one named Teacher includes a machine gun and the enticing news: “Now with Extra Ammo!” Another figure marked Eagle Scout advertises a response to newsworthy anti-gay rules and regulations: “Now with an Open Mind.” Barbie-inspired glamour dolls labeled Sparkle Beach Rhino are displayed in pink packaging—each holds a machine gun and wears a gas mask. A blonde female in tight black is packed with the words “Be a man. Bend her to your will. Show her who is boss.”

I have discovered that some of the thought-provoking iconography has been influenced by the story of a rhino on the loose in a small French town where it aims to convert all the people into horned aggressors—except one man who refuses. The popular story, Rhinoceros, came out during the 1959 movement called “Theater of the Absurd.” Playwright Eugene Ionesco wrote this drama to explore humanistic themes about power, nonconformity, and morality.

The gallery is filled with all manner of gas mask—symbolic of fear and protection from deadly toxic environments. The mask is also reminiscent of a rhino’s horn. Is the mask worn by conformist or non? Messages are suggested, but one is left with enough ambiguity to look again and consider more deeply the images and ideas. One end of the gallery displays finely rendered pen and ink drawings of figures wearing the symbolic mask gas—boys, girls, mothers, babies, lovers, and a soldier who asks, “Have you got yours?”

I am reminded of song lyrics (“Beautiful Gas Mask” by Mountain Goats) that urge the endangered to “never sleep, remember to breathe deep.“ Psychologist Rollo May wrote, “The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity.” Innocence Lost points to the courage of those who challenge the powers that be—stand up for human rights, truth, and freedom.

Tomasello’s installation is up through November 25.

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